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Patuxent wildlife research center in Laurel gets new name and makeover with recent mergers

Situated between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., on more than 12,000 acres managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Patuxent Research Refuge has been a center of wildlife and habitat research since its beginnings in 1936, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated it as the first — and only — National Wildlife Refuge in the United States dedicated to supporting wildlife research.

In an effort to maintain and fund the refuge’s quality of wildlife research, the U.S. Geological Survey, which operates the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center at the refuge, merged it a year ago with two of its other science centers — Leetown Science Center in West Virginia and S.O. Conte Research laboratory in Massachusetts. Those two specialize in fish research and fisheries resources. In March, with the merger complete, the U.S. Geological Survey announced the merged science center’s new name: the U.S.G.S. Eastern Ecological Science Center at Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel.

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Thomas O’Connell, the U.S.G.S. Eastern Ecological Science Center director, said the merger is “an opportunity.”

For the past 15 years, the centers have lost 30% to 40% of their funding and have had their staff reduced about 30% to 40%, O’Connell said, due to budget cuts.

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“It has been a dire financial situation,” O’Connell said. “By combining the centers, we have saved significant amounts of money to do science. Over the last year, we have reorganized our teams to integrate between our centers.”

Alicia Berlin, a biologist at Patuxent Research Refuge for 12 years, has seen many changes and challenges over the years.

“Most scientists and staff adapt. You learn how to make new goals,” Berlin said. “There are a lot of opportunities with this merger that we didn’t have before.”

With Patuxent Research Center’s goal on wildlife and Leetown’s focus on fish and aquatics, scientists now have access to more species, habitats and ecological systems, O’Connell said.

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“It’s a new perspective,” Berlin said. “We’re not stuck in our own silo.”

Alicia Berlin, biologist at the Eastern Ecological Science Center, observes Common Eiders at the center's sea bird colony on Friday, May 14, 2021.
Alicia Berlin, biologist at the Eastern Ecological Science Center, observes Common Eiders at the center's sea bird colony on Friday, May 14, 2021. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media)

O’Connell also wants more community involvement. While the North and South tracts of Patuxent Research Refuge are open to the public with trails in both and the National Wildlife Visitor Center located in the South tract, the Central Tract, where the U.S.G.S. Eastern Ecological Science Center is located, is closed to the public except for one day a year, when it opens its doors to the community to showcase its research. O’Connell would like to offer more opportunities for the public to attend.

“Community engagement is critical to success. The community has to want us to be here,” O’Connell said. “It is hard to do with COVID. We had a virtual Earth Day event. People could ask questions to scientists.”

A bird banding lab and a nature pollinators program are two examples that could have community participation, O’Connell said,

“We are working with Friends of the Patuxent to engage with these opportunities,” O’Connell said.

A nonprofit organization, Friends of the Patuxent supports the scientific research at the refuge as well as its education, outreach and recreation missions, according to its website.

“We give grants to scientists and support research,” said Richard Dolesh, chair of the Friends of Patuxent board of directors. “We fund programs like … a falconer came and we brought a real wolf.”

The pandemic, Dolesh said, has taken a toll on the nonprofit’s budget, but he remains confident.

“We are hopeful,” Dolesh said. “We hope to do more as soon as we can to help fund programs.”

O’Connell, Berlin and Sam Droege, a bee scientist, showcased two of the many research projects that are based on the grounds in Laurel.

At the Bee Lab, a former garage used for a whooping crane breeding program and then abandoned when the project ended years ago, Droege and his team collect, preserve and photograph the area’s native bee population.

“How are bees doing? We don’t know,” Droege said. “What’s the best way we can catch a bee?”

Native bees are responsible for pollinating most flowers, Droege said, and he regularly speaks to local gardening clubs and bee clubs about what plants are best to attract native bees. He has volunteers help with everything from pinning dead bees in boxes for study purposes to planting native plants to see how they affect bees.

“We need to increase interest in pollinators,” Droege said. “We can help any group.”

Berlin’s passion is sea ducks. The birds typically winter in the Chesapeake Bay, but their numbers have been dwindling. Berlin started looking into the problem and built the sea duck program at the refuge from the ground up. In pens with ample water holes and space, Berlin has raised several species of sea ducks for research. Two deep diving tanks were also installed to allow viewing of the birds as they eat and dive.

Recently, the tanks were used to see how the birds responded to various noises, as Berlin and her team were researching ways to ward birds off from fisherman’s net to prevent entanglements.

“We are finding solutions to save money,” Berlin said.

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